WASHINGTON — A broad majority of Americans, exhausted by nearly a dozen years of war and fearful of tripping into another one, are opposed to a military strike on Syria, even though most say they think Syrian forces used chemical weapons against civilians, according to the latest New York Times/CBS News poll.
Those findings illustrate the depth of the challenge facing President Barack Obama as he tries to win support for a limited strike from a deeply reluctant Congress and an American public that has become steadily more skeptical of foreign engagement.
Obama’s task was further complicated by a Russian proposal that President Bashar Assad of Syria give up his chemical weapons — a plan that muddies the president’s case for military action.
The poll underscores a steady shift in public opinion about the proper American role in the world, as fatigue from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has made people less open to intervening in the world’s trouble spots and more preoccupied with economic travails at home.
In the Syrian crisis, 6 in 10 Americans oppose airstrikes, according to the poll, with similar majorities saying they fear military action could enmesh the United States in another long engagement in the Middle East and would increase the terrorist threat to Americans.
But the antipathy to foreign engagement extends beyond the current crisis. Sixty-two percent of the people polled said the United States should not take a leading role in trying to solve foreign conflicts, while only 34 percent said it should. In April 2003, a month after American troops marched into Iraq, 48 percent favored a leading role, while 43 percent opposed it.
When asked whether the United States should intervene to turn dictatorships into democracies, 72 percent said no while only 15 percent said yes. That is the highest level of opposition in a decade of polling on this question. At the start of the Iraq War, 48 percent favored staying out and 29 percent favored getting involved.
“A lot of people bought the idea that if we create democracy in the Middle East, the terrorists would stop coming,” said Walter Russell Mead, a professor of humanities and foreign policy at Bard College. “But that conflation has disappeared, and that makes it harder to gin up the popular support for foreign military intervention.”
For Obama, who has repeatedly ruled out sending troops to Syria and promised a “limited, tailored” operation, the findings reinforce his failure so far to make his case to the American public, which has seemed as skeptical as some of the nation’s allies.
Nearly 80 percent of those surveyed said the Obama administration had not clearly explained its objectives in Syria, while 69 percent said Obama should not go ahead with a strike without congressional authorization. Fifty-six percent of people said they disapproved of how the president has handled Syria, while 33 percent approved.
The poll was conducted before the Russia floated its proposal, and while the proposal may yet founder for a variety of reasons it was clear in follow-up interviews with the Americans surveyed that they were latching on to any solutions that would avert a military strike.
“I just saw on the Internet that the Russians said they would take Syria’s weapons of mass destruction if they would give them up, and destroy them,” said Jim Ploskunak, 68, a retired manager of a foundry who lives in Charlo, Mont. “That’s better than war.”
The resistance to getting involved in Syria is deep. While 75 percent of people think that Assad’s forces used chemical weapons, 74 percent say they oppose supplying rebel forces in Syria with conventional arms. The Obama administration reluctantly adopted that policy on a covert basis in June after it concluded that Syrian forces had used chemical weapons on a smaller scale in previous attacks.
“What our government needs to do is work on keeping our country safe,” said Jeanette Baskin, a social worker on Staten Island. “We invest all this money in foreign countries and fixing their problems and this country is falling apart. Makes no sense.”
The nationwide poll was conducted via landlines and cellphones from Sept. 6-8 with 1,011 adults. It has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.
While Obama’s approval rating in handling of terrorism has dipped, American’s views of Congress have improved slightly. Twenty-four percent approved of its performance, compared with 17 percent in July. But a resounding 68 percent still disapprove.
For lawmakers, it is clear that their vote on Syria carries genuine peril. Seventy-six percent of people said it would matter in how they evaluated their representatives.
“If the people through their congressmen suggest we not go to war with Syria, then the people have spoken,” said Robert Holloway, 79, of Sparta, Ill., a retired manager of a coal company.